Meg Kearney: is she the victim?
Here is the Franz Wright letter generating all the controversy:
Meg Kearney, in response to your invitation, insinuating I would like the writing program at Pine Manor: you have to be shitting me—have I not made it clear that MFA programs have turned poetry into an occupation and a joke—have weakened american poetry, have desecrated it into artifact instead of a result of a soul’s progress in solitary devotion. You have turned it into one more subject in a university or college or private scam operation like yours. Everyone from no talent unknowns to Chs Simic, C Wright, Levine, Strand, etc (those magnificently promising poets born in the late twenties and thirties who sold their souls to the deans for an upper middle class lifestyle —phony radicals, hypocrites all, like Carolyn Forche, live in a luxury unimaginable to the human beings they play act solidarity with can make it if you imitate whatever ephemeral bullshit is hip at the moment —a real writer has always sought solitude, not group therapy…Those writing programs have lowered the bar so far down anyone can trip over it and get a degree and consider themselves A MASTER AT THE ART OF POETRY at 24 (a feat previously achieved in English only by Keats, H. Crane…any MFA subdoormat poet, like Melanie Braverman, by being a nice mommie can succeed at a school like Brandeis because real talent means nothing now—a business sense plus niceness is all…and the actual talent there, Olga Broumas, who sold herself for health insurance maybe fifteen years ago, has not published a book since her collected, RAVE, in 1999, a disaster. How many actual poets can one generation, even a standout one produce? We now have more writers than readers of poetry, we have ACADEMIC POETS AS THE GREAT ASPIRATION OF 21 YEAR OLD KNOW-NOTHINGS, the very enslavement real writers have been fleeing forever: you have only to picture Rimbaud or Blake in a writing workshop, they’d be out of this absurd scene (lovely line breaks, Billie) ready to slip into harness, ready to desecrate the art they claim to love and their own soul their own minds & hearts, —and YOU all get the dough. Think of the state of the soul and just cut it out. You can still choose. Franz Wright
The general response to FW’s letter has been, predictably, ‘oh how mean!’ or this one from Diane Seuss:
it’s a Republican view, yours, isn’t it, exclusivist, backward-gazing, nostalgic for a time when there were three great men sucking at poetry’s tit-sack and not a million…
Actually, we think Franz Wright’s response is extremely fine: he goes out of his way to explain why he is refusing Meg Kearney’s invitation, instead of just saying, no. It’s really a positive: a Pulitzer-prize winner taking the time to express his deeply-felt opinion on an issue he considers vital to poetry.
We cannot help but notice that every Franz-basher ignores the simple truth of what he says.
MFA programs have turned poetry into an occupation…one more subject in a university…a private scam operation like yours
Simic, C. Wright, Levine, Strand…sold their souls to the deans for an upper middle class lifestyle
phony radicals, hypocrites
a real writer has always sought solitude not group therapy
writing programs have lowered the bar so far down anyone can trip over it and get a degree and consider themselves Master at the Art of Poetry at 24 (a feat achieved in English previously only by Keats, H. Crane)
any MFA subdoormat poet, like Melanie Braverman, by being a nice mommie can succeed at a school like Brandeis because real talent means nothing now—a business sense plus niceness is all
Olga Broumas sold herself for health insurance maybe fifteen years ago
How many poets can one generation, even a standout one, produce?
We now have more writers than readers of poetry
We have Academic Poets as the great aspiration for 21 year old no-nothings
picture Rimbaud or Blake in a writing workshop
this absurd scene and YOU get all the dough
Think of the state of the soul and just cut it out
These are perfectly legitimate grievances, and there’s quite a lot of material, and some of it quite well said, and if these things are true, they are quite important, and really should be addressed. Are they true? Well, they are the opinion of Mr. Wright, and stand up as that, and anyone should be able to see their “free speech” aspect is more important than their “ill-mannered” aspect.
If poetry is being so badly taught in MFA programs that poetic expression is being irreversibly harmed and students scammed, who better to address the issue than a Pulitzer-prize winning poet? Who else is going to blow the whistle? The teachers, the programs, the schools themselves? We understand “scam” is a strong word—but if seen in the context of critical judgment (rather than a cruder accusation of outright scamming) the charge, we think, is maintainable.
Wright’s point is based on the fact that poetry is not something that anyone can learn in a few years.
A little poetry knowledge is a dangerous thing if bad poetry taught badly does delude and harm people.
The issue is pedagogical, and it certainly can be argued that teaching poetry is not value-neutral, but harmful if not done right, and therefore Wright’s warning should not be simply dismissed on the count of ‘bad manners.’ One can disagree with Wright about the worth of Keats v. Kearney, but if his opinion is correct, what he has to say is important and useful.
Let’s take a look at a poem by Meg Kearney:
I suppose squirrels have their hungers, too,
like the one I saw today with the ass end of a mouse
jutting from its mouth. I was in the park;
I’d followed the stare of a dog, marveled
as the dog seemed to marvel that the squirrel
didn’t gag on the head, gulped so far down
that squirrel’s throat nearly all that was visible
was the grey mouse rump, its tail a string
too short to be saved. The dog and I couldn’t
stop gawking. The squirrel looked stunned himself —
the way my ex, The Big Game Hunter, looked
when I told him I was now a vegetarian.
We’d run into each other at a street fair
in Poughkeepsie. The hotdog he was eating
froze in his hand, pointed like a stubby finger,
accused me of everything I’d thought
I’d wanted, and what I’d killed to get it.
This poem opens with vagueness, “I suppose squirrels have their hungers, too,” and it just gets worse. Line 7’s “that squirrel’s throat” gives the mistaken impression the poet is calling the squirrel of the poem”Squirrel,” as if it were a cartoon (Rocky and Bullwinkle?). All those “I’ds?” Horrendous. The poet reading a dog’s thoughts is ridiculous, and the preachy vegetarian angle involving the ex (who is stunned like the squirrel??) and the hotdog forces not only a moral down our throats, but an entire ugly poem, stretching to make its point. Is the poet trying to make the reader gag? I can see the anthology: Poems That Make Us Vomit. Or: Poets Who Really Hate Their Ex.
So here’s the problem. Meg Kearney’s poem is not accomplished. It’s poor writing. Should we be paying for this, or paying for this kind of thing to be taught?
So Franz Wright may certainly be ill-mannered in this instance, but in terms of aesthetics and pedagogy, he may just be right.